People often come to therapy and ask about “the secret of a happy life,” wondering what they do wrong because they experience unhappiness. This question reflects a common misconception about what we can expect of our lives and ourselves; it deservers some discussion.
To begin with, we cannot expect to feel cheery all of the time. Despite this apparently obvious truth, our culture constantly preaches that life can be forever happy, if only we find the right mix of activities, people, possessions, and pills. In truth, the moments of our lives are filled with many emotions, with pain, sadness, joy, excitement, surprise, shame, anger, disappointment, and so much more. A life forever filled with happiness proves to be a myth and would probably seem quite boring. Nevertheless, we do encounter individuals who are at peace with themselves and their universe. These people have achieved a sense of personal serenity that all of us have the capacity to realize.
One way to visualize a contented life might be to think of it as a stool with three legs: generosity, gratitude, and acceptance. You may then consider the seat of this stool as hope. By hope, I mean the belief that good comes from living, and that the apparent difficulties we endure can deepen us in ways not imagined while in the midst of experiencing them.
So, allow me to discuss each of these concepts in more detail.
Generosity, simply put, entails the giving of one’s self in some manner. The most powerful forms of generosity are personal, not financial. I recall many years ago, when I worked as a juvenile probation officer in West Philadelphia, the gift of a glass of orange juice. I supervised an adolescent boy being raised by his grandmother in a high-rise project building. This woman had a limited income, stretched even more by the needs of a growing teenager. One September afternoon, I went to their apartment for a home visit. The temperature hung over ninety degrees all day, and I had been making visits on foot for many hours by the time I reached their apartment. After speaking to the young man, I returned to the grandmother who, smiling, handed me a glass of cold orange juice. I drank it right down and handed the glass back to her, asking for more without words. The woman smiled, poured another glass, and handed it to me. Over forty years later, I remember the woman’s smile and appreciate her simple gift. Her face suggested that she felt good about the kindness as well.
The second principle, gratitude, allows us to notice and enjoy the blessings of our lives. How often do we pass over the beauty we come across every day, focused instead on whatever worry consumes us at the moment or longing for an elusive desire? The baseball player, Lou Gehrig, facing the loss of his career, his independence, and ultimately his life, stood before a crowd in Yankee Stadium in 1939 and declared himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.” He tapped into that well of peace that grows in everyone, nurturing a sense of appreciation for family, friends, and the opportunities he had enjoyed. While dealing with a life-ending disease, he could notice and appreciate life’s gifts.
The development of gratitude proves to be one of the most powerful and, for many, the most difficult of virtues. Nonetheless, its practice creates a sense of contentment few other personal qualities can equal.
If we look to Mr. Gehrig once again, we see an example of the third leg of our stool, that is, acceptance. Rather than struggle against reality, he acknowledged the circumstances with which he found himself and moved with them. This did not mean he looked forward to his inevitable death (I am certain he would have enjoyed playing baseball for many more years). It did mean that he avoided defining himself and his life by that one reality, his illness. I once heard an oncologist, who when asked if had ever witnessed a miraculous healing in his career, reply that he had not observed any miracles, but that he had known patients who gave up the struggle against the idea of having cancer. He commented that then their bodies began channeling the this energy into healing, with good outcomes as a consequence. When we “fight” against a reality in our life, in truth we fight against ourselves, but there is enormous power in acceptance.
I do not mean to imply that we must avoid striving to change and grow. Confronting personal traits that we recognize as self-defeating, seeking to grow and deepen as a person, or in standing up for our beliefs can be transformative. Nor I do propose that the sorrows and disappointments of living do not hurt. I do mean that when we acknowledge a personal trial, we can embrace it and give it meaning. This ability uniquely helps us to grow in new directions that would not have been obvious prior to encountering the distress. How we frame the anxieties encountered in living goes a long way towards how we eventually experience ourselves, the people we encounter in our lives, and the universe we inhabit.
In the end, we discover the freedom to live as ourselves. Thus we reach a place of hope, that seat of wisdom that gives life its meaning. All the great religions and philosophies of the world have come to this conclusion. Science, now, has discovered it as well.
One method of beginning the practices of gratitude, generosity, and acceptance is to develop a custom of centering yourself. To this end, people perform meditation, learn yoga, or read about people who have exhibited qualities they seek to develop in themselves. Becoming centered permits you to perceive the world instead of reacting to it. After a time, you might amaze yourself at how differently your life appears and start to reconsider your priorities and values. Then you begin to touch satisfaction and peace.
Some contemporary writers in psychology prefer to speak of a state of contentment rather than happiness, and I favor this idea as well. When we attain a state of contentment, when we realize the pointlessness of struggling against the dilemmas of our lives, we achieve a place where it is possible to hope, because we experience life in the moment. This idea may sound fanciful, yet if we look around us, we will find individuals who have achieved such a state. In the end, getting there is a matter of intention and practice.
There are a number of sources, in books and on line, that you might want to seek out if you have a further interest in these ideas. I have referenced Lou Gehrig several times in this discussion. For those interested in exactly what he said on that July 4th, I suggest you go to www.lougehrigspeech.com to read his words in their entirety.
A book authored by Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie, recounts conversations between the author and Morrie Schwartz, a retired professor who was dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the same disease that caused Lou Gehrig’s death. Professor Schwartz expressed many of the same thoughts mentioned here.
For those interested in reading about this from a more spiritual perspective, I suggest The Gift of Peace, written by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, a Roman Catholic prelate who authored the work while in the process of dying of cancer. You will find both books easy to read, and they convey, in somewhat different ways, the ideas presented in this discussion.
I invite you, most of all, to initiate the practices of generosity, gratitude, and acceptance as avenues to personal growth and contentment.
Bernard J. Bonner, Ph.D.